“To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who’s never run is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind.” – Jerome Drayton
I figured I’d begin this blog entry with that famous quote (well, famous at least in the marathoning community) by Jerome Drayton, because I felt the term “agony” would be quite appropriate for today. Jerome is the Canadian record holder in the marathon (2:10 time set in 1975 – which, by the way, is hellishly fast – especially in cold of Canada, where the average temperature is -120 and penguins are in a constant search for parkas), and he obviously understood very well the ordeal that a marathoner goes through from the moment he toes the line to the moment he breaks the tape. As my alarm began to blare at 4:15am (“The Game” by Motorhead), even the words of the song rang menacingly in my ears:
“It’s all about the game and how you play it.
All about control and if you can take it.
All about your debt and if you can pay it.
It’s all about pain and who’s gonna make it.”
Motorhead….those heavy metal dudes must have run a marathon. Maybe that’s why they sound so darn angry all the time – they must write all their lyrics after hitting the wall at mile 20. I listened to the words as my head remained on the pillow. I knew how to play the game – this will by my sixth ING New York City Marathon. I know the course. I know what to expect. I have a strategy. The question that remains is whether I will be able to follow my strategy for the entire race. My ability to take control of the situation today, regardless of how my foot held up was an open question as well. I believe I paid my debts up to this point – I worked hard, lost weight, consistently went to practice and completed the necessary long runs each weekend. It all comes down to the pain – how much could I take and whether my foot will hold up for the entire race. The Game – what began simply as my alarm for marathon morning turned into my theme song for the day.
I slid my legs out from under the covers, and gently rested my feet on the floor. The moment of truth – I stood up. There was a slight ache – but nothing hobbling. Just minor discomfort. I quickly convinced myself that the lack of true pain at this point in the day was a sign of great things to come. I walked to the bathroom without a hint of a limp, and took a long hot shower. I then got dressed – which, for the New York City Marathon, is a procedure:
- Generous portions of body glide to sensitive areas
- My favorite pair of Team for Kids running socks
- My most comfortable pair of spandex compression shorts
- My Marathon Maniacs bright yellow team singlet (I wear this singlet under any shirt I choose to race in, because it reminds me of the other team I am associated with – a group of running lunatics that make my addiction to this sport look rather….well….tame. My Maniac team mates are incredible – some run a marathon A WEEK. Others run two IN A WEEKEND. They are a group of people that have taken the term impossible and performed the Irish gig all over it. Suddenly I appear….well…..subdued. As I said to my buddy Al a long time ago: “Al, everything’s relative”. On the left shoulder I wrote the word “Bobby”. On the right: “Johnny”. On the back near the neckline: the initials “RVE”. Bobby and Johnny were my brothers – they never got a chance to run. I run for them and they run with me. Every mile. My angels on my shoulders. RVE is my grandfather’s initials – I wear them on my back because he ALWAYS had my back, without fail. I surrounded myself with angels; if you believe in that sort of stuff. I had a feeling I might need them today. There’s an old saying from World War II: there are no atheists in foxholes…..well I’ll be taking my share of enemy ordinance today.
- My most comfortable pair of Nike running shorts
- My Team for Kids lime green (radioactive green would be a better description) singlet
- A pair of old black running pants that I didn’t really care too much about
- My Saucony running shoes
- An old long sleeve shirt that I would leave at the starting line
- My horrendously ugly lime green running jacket from the 2008 NYC Marathon.
Layers are the key for dressing for this marathon. The wind off of the water makes waiting three hours at the marathon village on Staten Island extremely rough. Staying warm is incredibly important.
After I finished dressing, I grabbed my bottle of Gatorade and my Iphone (which is basically an additional appendage at this point), and headed out the door. As I walked out into the cold, I realized two things: It was about 38 degrees outside…and I’m not near the water, and I forgot my pop tarts. Now I know I ate a good dinner, but the rule is that runners should top off their energy tanks with approximately 800 calories of high-carbohydrate food in the morning. And I LOOOOVE pop tarts. I decided to not return to the apartment, and head to the starting line.
I made a stop at a local diner for my traditional bacon & egg on a roll – that helped me feel a bit better. I continued to walk to our team buses on 7th Avenue in the 50’s in Manhattan. I arrived cold and nervous at 5:55am…5 minutes before our scheduled departure.
As I sat in the bus, I realized that I was more prepared than ever to run 26.2 miles. I never trained so hard for any one day in my life. Football….rowing….ten other marathons and a decent number of half marathons…nothing came close. I pushed myself this year. I remained focused on the goal and stayed dedicated to practice. There was nothing more I could do. So as the bus rolled down Broadway on the way to the Battery Tunnel, I closed my eyes and made a promise to myself: that whatever happens, I would see this through to the finish. Just surrender myself to the moment. That I would not fail. I would not quit. After making that silent vow to myself, I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, and reached in my bag for……my Sony PSP.
That’s right, lab rats: I have a Sony PSP. A great little gadget. I watched the movie Hancock as we passed through Queens and Brooklyn.
As we closed in on the Verrazano Bridge, I turned off the movie and began keeping my eyes peeled for Team Achilles. This is a team made up of runners with disabilities. They get to start earlier than the rest of us, because their day will be longer than ours, in most cases. Each Achilles athlete is paired with a guide that will help them through the course. Each blind runner holds a small rope that connects them to his/her personal guide. Athletes in old fashioned wheel chairs (like the ones that you get rolled around in whilst in a hospital) are escorted by a guide to help them with whatever they may need. Athletes on crutches are assigned guides for assistance and safety. They all wear their traditional team red t shirts – and I personally think that a big S should be attached to each of their chests, for they are superpeople, in my opinion. To watch them begin their race while I am still in my warm bus fills me with a sense of pride to simply be in the same race as these heroic athletes.
There’s one Achilles athlete – an African American gentleman whose name I do not know because we haven’t formally introduced ourselves – that absolutely blows me away. I see him every year at the marathon, as well as most every New York Road Runner’s Race I participate in. In order to log his miles, he turns his wheelchair backwards and shuffles his feet the best he can, slowly propelling him around whatever course we are running. He constantly has to look over his shoulders to see where he’s going, and he consistently talks to his guide for his/her thoughts and reassurance. His pace is very slow – but he always finishes. Every time I pass him, I yell “Go Achilles!!!”…and in return I get a thumb’s up. The image of him pushing himself like this over bridges and through crowded streets is engrained in my brain – It’s one of those lasting memories that has attached itself to my mental recording of this incredible day.
The buses dropped my teammates and I off at the front of Fort Wadsworth at approximately 7:30am. My wave was scheduled to start at 10:40am. Three hours in the cold. No big surprise.
I spent my time talking with my teammates. Most were first timers. I reassured them the best I could. Tried to fire a few of them up. Did my best to make them relax through laughter. Before I knew it, it was time to stretch. Then some final words from the coach. Then….head to the corrals to start our wave of the race.
After a five minute walk to the corral, I waited alongside several hundred other runners to enter the starting area. Runners are herded into large corrals just like cattle, left to wait for upwards of 45 minutes before the singing of the Starred Spangled Banner…and then the cannon.
Once the cannon’s blast echoes in the air, the mass of humanity inches its way forward through the front gates of Fort Wadsworth (lovingly referred to as “the World’s Largest Urinal”), I finally reach the starting line after almost ten minutes of this snail’s pace. I cross the starting line, and I start my running watch. The GPS in my Garmin running watch calculates pace per mile, total time elapsed, and approximate distance covered – it will be my lifeline for the next five hours.
Since I wore a green-numbered bib, I began the race on the lower deck of the bridge. The lack of sunlight, the cold temperatures, and the strong winds off of the water made for a frigid first two miles. I was lucky to run into a TFK teammate as I traversed the bridge, and our light banter took my mind off of the fact that I was freezing my dimpled Irish ass off.
As we passed the two mile mark, we left the bridge behind and entered Brooklyn. Feeling the sun on my face and the softening of the wind as we made our way off of the highway and on to the streets of this amazing borough, I looked down at my watch: 20 minutes down. 10 minute per mile pace. Perfect.
Onto the streets of Brooklyn we spilled. Thousands of runners of all shapes and sizes, wearing every color of the rainbow. As all of us shuffled through the side streets, the crowds along the sidewalks began to grow. As a runner who’s experienced this marathon before, I knew what was coming: 4th Avenue. These side streets in Bay Ridge was a first glimpse of what was in store for all of us. Children handing out paper towels to wipe the sweat from our faces. Families that set up makeshift water stations. Grandparents banging pots and pans out second story windows. And then…..the right turn is made, and onto 4th Avenue we go. HELLO BROOKLYN.
To try to describe the ethnic diversity of miles 3 through 13 in this blog would do the experience a severe injustice. From the moment the runners step foot into Brooklyn, the thick crowds of loud, adoring fans yell and scream their lungs out for complete strangers. As I made my way through mile 3, I literally bumped into two other teammates that I consistently ran with for months during practice. They were like oasis in a large desert – a most welcome sight. They helped me maintain my pace as the miles ticked away. 4 miles – 40 minutes. 6 miles – one hour down. 10 miles in – one hour and forty minutes in the books. We averaged a nice, easy 10 minute per mile pace, and I felt strong. We high-fived kids as we jogged along. We cheered for Team Achilles as we passed them by. We cheered on our teammates whenever we saw another lime green jersey, regardless of whether we knew them. The first two hours of this race was a constant block party. To look at everyone lining the streets – every color and creed represented – all yelling as one to spur the runners on – it restores my faith and my love for this city on an annual basis. As we hit the Pulaski bridge and left Brooklyn, I checked our time: 2 hours, 12 minutes. That was a personal best for me in the half marathon distance. I’ve never covered 13.1 miles in less than 2 hours and 20 minutes before. As I looked at my teammates, I mentioned: “2 hours 20 in, and we are halfway there. We are cruising!”
…..and as the three of us yelled “HELLO QUEENS!!!”, a small, all-too familiar voice responded:
The Tool: “Hello Joe. Remember me?”
Me: “Yup. I figured you’d show that sour puss of your’s at some point.”
The Tool: “Know that, for what I am about to do, I am NOT sorry.”
Me: “Well whatever you have planned, know that I have a counter-attack prepared.”
The Tool: “You know….that was the fastest half marathon you’ve ever run.”
Me: “Yup. I’m cruising.”
The Tool: “Well I take great joy in telling you that you came out too fast. And the damage is done.”
Me: “No it isn’t. I can handle whatever you throw at me.”
The Tool: “I know you. I AM YOU. I AM YOUR SELF-DOUBT. While you rested and watched episodes of House on TV, I built up my troops. Every time you hobbled to the fridge for a diet coke…..every time you had to ice your foot….every time you felt that question in your head of ‘gee, I wonder if I’ll be OK on race day’…..every time you skipped a practice because you needed to give your heel time to mend…..THAT….WAS….ME. You have no answer for me. This asphalt you’re running on – that’s just the road. I…..AM….THE…..GAME. And Joe, you cannot play me. I AM THE PAIN – AND YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO TAKE ME.”
Me: “You talk too much, you little 4 inch prick. Now shut up and just bring it.”
……and with that, the battle was joined.
“Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.” – Steve Prefontaine